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12.03.11

Was Herman Cain's Presidential Bid Worth It?

Yes, sex scandals suspended his presidential ambitions. But did the Heminator manage to get his message across anyway? By Michelle Goldberg

Throughout the Herman Cain campaign, many people have wondered if it was all just a publicity stunt that got out of control. After all, he famously refused to divert his book tour to stump in important early-primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. His campaign infrastructure has been minimal and his advertising bizarre. He never bothered to learn the most elementary facts of American foreign policy. He drinks during public events—even, as The Daily Beast reported in September, in the morning. He behaved like someone having a blast while auditioning for a Fox News gig, not running for major political office.

That campaign was “designed to give him a platform so he could sell more books,” says Rich Galen, a Republican consultant who in the past has served as press secretary to Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich. Galen is one of many people to compare Cain’s campaign to The Producers, the Mel Brooks movie turned Broadway smash about a play that was created to flop but became an accidental hit. “It’s the same thing the Herman Cain campaign was counting on,” Galen says. “The campaign was never going anywhere, and he could sell another 50, 60, 70 thousand books, gracefully exit, have a higher name ID and charge more for speeches.”

But if this theory is true, did it work? Already, Cain has gotten far more scrutiny that he seems to have counted on. His brief run as the GOP frontrunner brought to light accusations of sexual harassment and a 13-year affair, which, besides dooming his candidacy, tarnished  his genial, wholesome reputation. Ultimately, though, the race may still end up helping the Cain brand more than hurting it.

That brand has long been at the center of his business. Though best known as the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, in years prior to his presidential run, he mostly worked as a motivational speaker and radio host. His company is called T.H.E. New Voice; the T.H.E stands for The Herminator Experience. It’s a phrase he’s trademarked to refer to his multimedia blitz of inspirational materials, which exhort people to become a “CEO of SELF.” On his website, you can buy his books, along with DVD seminars and pamphlets like “Leadership Requires Leadership,” which costs $5. He’s said he typically gets $25,000 for speeches. If he’s not quite the tycoon he makes himself out to be, he’s certainly done well for himself—according to his financial disclosure forms, his net worth is somewhere between $2.9 million and $6.8 million.

“What I don’t understand is why anybody would spend all that money to actually win,” says David Lavin. “It makes more sense to spend that money and lose.”

According to David Lavin, president of The Lavin Agency, one of the country’s most prestigious speakers’ bureaus, he’s likely to do even better in the future. “Significantly more people know Herman Cain or are interested in Herman Cain now than a couple years ago,” he says. He’s now a household name and New York Times bestselling author. As things stand now, Lavin says, he’ll be able to charge between $50,000 and $75,000 for a speech. “Sarah Palin, I think she has set the standard for how to lose and make millions,” he says. “What I don’t understand is why anybody would spend all that money to actually win. It makes more sense to spend that money and lose.”

Disillusioned supporters feel differently. “He was taking advantage of people and getting people to donate so he could party and have fun on his book tour,” says Ladd Ehlinger Jr., a conservative filmmaker who championed Cain early on. Ehlinger had talked with the campaign about making commercials for Cain, and felt strung along when they didn’t pan out. But he insists he didn’t get really angry until he stopped believing that Cain was serious about the presidency.

Still, Ehlinger expects Cain to come out on top. There are still plenty of people on the right, he says, who see Cain as a victim of a liberal conspiracy, and who will eagerly follow him to his next gig. “He was a ‘B’ celebrity, now he’s an ‘A’ celebrity,” says Ehlinger. “He really doesn’t have to repair any of the damage from the ‘liberal smears.’ He’s set for life.” He always said he was, first and foremost, a businessman.